Although I’m still waiting to receive my contributor copy of EVENT 47.3 in the mail, I’ve known it’s been out for about a week now, so I figured I’d post before the bulk of you had a chance to hold it in your hands. You’ve probably guessed the news already: two of my poems are featured in the issue, and I couldn’t be more excited! I’m in great company, too, especially with Annick MacAskill (who, apart from being a fabulous poet, reader, and workshopper, also shouted me out on Twitter earlier this week–thanks, Annick!). My sincere thanks go out to the EVENT editorial team for including my contributions (and for the photograph below).
While I’m excited to see the work in print, I’ve also wondered for some months whether I would, or should, write a note about writing “Non-binary” (which, along with “Object,” is one of the two poems published this month). There’s a lot to say–much more than I initially thought, actually–but I think it’s still worth keeping in mind that anything I have to say here should be purely subordinate to the poem and its effects on you and others.
It might make sense to begin by saying that, to me at least, “Non-binary” isn’t exclusively about non-binary gender identity. That the term has come to signify a way of identifying outside of a particular gender binary is noteworthy, I think, considering the many forms of non-binary thinking and acting highlighted by a variety of theoretical and practical outlooks, many of which are or have been important to me in my life. On this broad level, I trust that non-binary individuals and their allies also have some appreciation for the overlap in meanings. On the other hand, to the extent that the poem is about non-binary identity more narrowly defined, I don’t intend to implicate ‘non-binariness’ as a homogeneous category or even a single objective concept. I understand that, by its very nature, it means very different things to the many different individuals who live it or live alongside it.
In an important sense, “Non-binary” is very much about how I relate to non-binariness within a certain strain of my personal experience. Why did I write it? I think there are at least a few good reasons why I shouldn’t have; for example, it may be that my perspective simply isn’t relevant, or that by framing the topic according to my own experience as a cis-man I am contributing to the exclusion and marginalization of stakeholders whose voices need to be heard more urgently. I think I’m willing to take responsibility for either of those eventualities (or any others that may come up), and I hope my actions will make good on that promise if the situation demands it. I believe it is important for a writer to consider whether the publication of their work may cause harm, and to take responsibility when it does. However, I don’t think this should be the predominant consideration in the decision to write or publish–especially when the ostensibly safer option (i.e., to not publish at all, or to publish only within a conventionally acceptable range of themes and topics) could reflect and reinforce a complacency that is itself a form of harm.
Some of what I’ve written about non-binary identity may be a reactionary response to difference, and again, I think I can own that if it is the case. But I also think there are more nuanced and mixed-up emotions in the poem, including significant doses of envy and shame. I understand identity, at least as I experience it, as something both socially constructed and (to an extent) fluid. In saying that, I don’t mean to implicate an abstracted monolith of capital-S Society; rather, society for me is the particular matrix of people I find myself surrounded by–including individuals who are non-binary and those who truck with them. In this context, part of my response to seeing how other people represent themselves is to wonder how I might follow or might have followed their example more or less than I have. I have defined myself in relation to others, and by doing so differently, I might have opened different sets of doors to both my surroundings and my own wants and needs, in essence becoming a different person. This is of course a continuing process, but it is also one in which history (both personal and cultural) remains an enduring factor: I am whatever I become, but I am also my past. These (im)possibilities of perpetual (re)construction weigh on me when I reflect on the identities I’ve taken up and carried with me over time, as I have tried to do in “Non-binary.” Hopefully that reflection can help me change what needs to be changed, as well as inhabit more ethically what probably won’t change.
I’m not sure if EVENT‘s editors bargained for any of this when they decided to publish “Non-binary.” In fact, I don’t really know what they bargained for, considering how little the discourse around publishing addresses what our writing actually says about us (especially when that discourse is shared among folks with normative identities in relation to gender, sex, race, ability, etc.). Ultimately, I hope this note doesn’t seem like an attempt to cover my bases or preempt any criticisms that might be raised against “Non-binary” (honestly, I’m not entirely sure anyone even cares that much). What I really want is to talk about these topics more, because that discourse, I think, is valuable in itself.